Wednesday, November 14, 2007

20 Days in October, Part II

...Continued from Part I

Monday, October 4

"The winner of this game will move on to the Playoffs. The loser will go home, the season was not a success."

That was how Jon Miller opened his broadcast on ESPN on that particular evening. The matchup would be the New York Mets, who were fortunate to be here after their near collapse. Their opponent, the Cincinnati Reds, seemed fortunate to be here, period. Their season was one of triumph against the odds, a low payroll and a young team, led by a couple of veterans in Greg Vaughn and pitcher Denny Neagle, and some young stars, namely Sean Casey, Pokey Reese and Scott Williamson. But overall, they seemed an odd mishmash of players who might have overachieved. Their manager, Jack McKeon, was in a similar position to the Mets' Bobby Valentine; still chasing that elusive Playoff Berth.

It was wet and chilly in Cincinnati that night. It was chilly in Binghamton, too, as I settled in to watch the game. The crowd, 54, 621 jammed to the rafters in the final days of the complete Riverfront Stadium, seemed in a murderous mood. A sea of Red, looking for Met blood.

The pitching matchup seemed fitting for these two teams. For the Mets, it was Al Leiter, taking the hill after a mostly uneven season that saw his best moments come at times when they were needed the most, facing off against Steve Parris, a journeyman who began the season in the minor leagues. Joe Morgan predicted a fast track on the wet Astroturf, and a high-scoring affair in which both bullpens might be worked deep.

I was tense. The game itself was tense. One game for the fate of the entire season, on the road, trying to erase the past, and reverse the collapse.

Rickey Henderson started it off against Parris. He took a ball, and then a strike before hitting a clean single in front of Vaughn in left. Alfonzo was next. Alfonzo took a called strike following a pickoff attempt by Parris. Then a ball.

Little did we know it, but the entire game was decided on the following pitch.

In the air to center. Going back on the ball is Hammonds. Still going back! Back to the wall, IT'S GONE!!! And that one seemed to surprise Hammonds! He went back on the ball thinking he might have a play, but it was gone! And the Mets, after just two batters, lead this game 2-nothing!"

-Jon Miller

Little do we know that Alfonzo's HR over the center field fence would be sufficient enough for Leiter. All I know right now is that Alfonzo might have just picked up the biggest hit for the Mets in 11 years, and I'm going nuts! But still, there's a long way to go, and Leiter's been awfully erratic this season. Can he keep his control enough, can he keep his pitch count down, and keep the Reds off the bases? It was easy to forget that not two years prior, Leiter had taken the ball for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, and pitched well, well enough to keep his team in the game, which they would come back and win. He's been in pressure games before.

Meanwhile, Parris is laboring simply to get through the first. He un-intentionally walks Piazza, although by this point, Piazza is a wreck, nursing varied nagging injuries, most notably a balky thumb. Ventura hits into a DP to end the inning, and so now Leiter takes the hill.

The right handed hitters for the Reds this night can be particularly tricky, especially Pokey Reese and Greg Vaughn, who gave Leiter fits in some regular season games. Dmitri Young is also a tough out, and Barry Larkin, well, he was always tough. And Leiter does the absolute last thing he wanted to do in the bottom of the first: he walks Reese on 6 pitches. Larkin flies out and Casey does too, both out to Henderson. Now it's Vaughn. He of 45 HRs, 16 of which came in the last month of the season.

Damned if Leiter doesn't carve him up and make him look silly. On a 3-2 pitch, Vaughn is sitting dead red, and Leiter just drops a curveball on the outside corner. Vaughn didn't know what hit him.

And Leiter was just getting warmed up.

After the Mets went quietly in the 2nd, Leiter is back to work. A one-out single by Jeffrey Hammonds amounts to nothing; Eddie Taubensee grounds to short and Aaron Boone pops up.

In the 3rd, the Mets rally once again. With 2 outs and nobody on, Parris walks Alfonzo. Already, panic has set in for the Reds. Denny Neagle, their #1 starter, has begun throwing in earnest in the bullpen. Olerud laces a double down the right field line. Parris intentionally walks Piazza, and that's it for him. With Ventura coming up, Neagle is summoned from the bullpen.

Neagle promptly walks Ventura to force in Alfonzo. 3-0 Mets.

The Reds battle a bit in their half of the 3rd, working Leiter into some deep counts, but all they can muster is a 2-out walk by Larkin, promptly followed by a Casey strikeout. Through the 4th, more of the same, a 1-2-3 inning for Leiter.

In the 5th, it's Rickey, leading off the inning against Neagle and hitting the first pitch deep and high and right down the left field line. Rickey stands and yells at the ball, as it tucks itself just fair, a HR for Rickey, a 4-0 Mets lead.

By now, I'm counting outs. It seems fait accompli, but one can never be too sure the way the past 2 weeks have gone. In the bottom of the 5th, Leiter continues to mow the Reds down. By now, they're just flailing helplessly. 9 pitches in the 5th. Alfonzo doubles home Ordonez in the 6th for a 5-0 lead. 14 pitches and Leiter's through the 6th. 9 more outs. The Mets string together a little rally in the 7th that goes nowhere. 7 pitches for Leiter in the 7th. Young and Hammonds look clueless in swinging at the first pitch. Taubensee leads off the 8th with a walk, and Aaron Boone follows by grounding into the DP. And as we moved to the 9th, Leiter is still working on a 1-hitter, 110 pitches thrown. Reese leads off the 9th and nails a ringing double down the LF line. And Benitez begins to loosen up in the bullpen, just in case he's needed. But Leiter is determined to finish this one off. I'm still tense. Larkin grounds to Ordonez. Casey strikes out again, and snaps his bat in two in frustration as he walks back to the dugout. A couple of drunken idiot Reds fans run onto the field, delaying the game. Valentine is incensed, as revealed on a quick shot in the dugout. Leiter pitches carefully to Vaughn...Perhaps too carefully, as he walks him on 5 pitches. So it's down to Dmitri Young. After a foul ball, Leiter reared back for his 135th pitch of the night...

Here's the pitch...Swung, lined hard, CAUGHT! The Game Is Over! The Mets Win It! They're on their way to Arizona! A wicked line drive hit by Dmitri Young, caught by Edgardo Alfonzo, The Game Is Over! The Mets have won the Wildcard in the National League!"

-Bob Murphy

Finally, after 11 years. Back to the Postseason! Finally, ultimate vindication for myself, for Bobby V., for John Franco, who had been the longest tenured player without postseason experience. For Piazza and his $91 million contract. And as the crowd at Riverfront Stadium booed and threw projectiles on the field, the Mets celebrated.

In the clubhouse, Valentine is quick to dismiss the criticisms that had surrounded him during the past two weeks. It's not about him. It's about his guys. "I don't know if he's ever pitched a better game than tonight." Valentine says about Leiter. "He had this look in his eye. When his mind is right, his arm is right. I think like center stage."

On WFAN, Bob Murphy calls this sterling 5-0 victory "The Happiest Recap of All!" And it just might well be, at least at this particular point in time. After watching the game a ball of tension, I finally released as the last out recorded, not with a scream, but by raising my arms in triumph.

But with the joy came the immediate realization that there was still more to be done. There was a trip to Phoenix to be made. Roster moves to be decided. And, most importantly, more baseball to be played.

The Mets would be off to Arizona to play the Diamondbacks, led by, Hello, Sir, Randy Johnson, and his surly temprament and 96 MPH fastball and deadly slider. They would be off to the land of the 11pm EDT start time.

But most importantly, off to their first Postseason series in a very, very long time.

Final Score
Mets - 5
Reds - 0

To Be Continued...
Part III - Words & Pain

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